It’s a great pleasure for a law firm to have the opportunity to partner with a nonprofit organization to provide pro bono services to both the organization itself and to the community it serves.  These are pro bono relationships we treasure, and that offer fulfilling opportunities to attorneys in varied practice areas.  (more…)

Let's Talk About Race And Pro Bono

There has been a great deal of sorely needed discussion lately about issues of racial inequality, racially disparate justice, and white privilege. I have always been one to think about these matters in my own life and work. In the world of pro bono, race is an ever present concern. Whether our society wants to admit it or not, it is obvious to those of us who do pro bono work regularly that the playing field is far from level in our justice system and otherwise. Of course, it’s even more obvious to people of color who are subjected to unequal treatment than it is to someone like me as a fairly close observer. (more…)

During the time I have been managing Baker Donelson’s pro bono programs, I’ve been impressed and gratified to see lawyers and bar associations and groups across the country step up en masse to tackle some very important legal issues. The death penalty is an issue that has received a great deal of attention for many years, and more recently the focus on immigration has increased dramatically. Civil rights cases, including issues like marriage equality, voting rights and human trafficking have made the news, and helping veterans is a mainstay. I’ve gotten involved in many of these issues myself, especially death penalty cases. (more…)

Pro bono has come a long way in the last decade or two. More and more law firms have effective, structured pro bono programs, and many corporate legal departments either have pro bono programs or are working on developing them.  It’s a particular thrill for me to learn about the pro bono interests of a client, especially when I have the opportunity to help the client advance those interests.  (more…)

Appleseed Event Featured Two Justice Legends Who Are Still Fighting, Opening Eyes

I had the great pleasure today of attending the Alabama Appleseed Brewer-Torbert Awards Luncheon. What an inspiring event!
This year’s award was presented to Fred Gray, a legendary civil rights attorney and icon. Mr. Gray grew up in Alabama during some of its darkest days of racial segregation and discrimination. As he put it during his remarks today, he wasn’t someone who always wanted to be a lawyer. “There were two professions in Alabama for a little black boy to grow up and go into,” he said: “You could be a preacher, or you could be a teacher. I decided to be both.” Mr. Gray did become both, and then he returned to Alabama to teach. But what he saw every day prodded him to do even more. Seeing black Alabamians mistreated as he rode the bus, Mr. Gray said he made a secret pledge to become a lawyer, then return to Alabama and destroy every segregated thing he could find. And he did! (more…)

Homeless Courts Are A Turning Point For Many

Over the last several months, I have had the privilege of being part of a team that has created and launched a new homeless court program in the City of Birmingham. We had some wonderful examples on which to model our effort, including the training provided by Steve Binder of San Diego, and the work in New Orleans that has been led by Baker Donelson attorney Sherry Dolan. With three monthly hearings now under our collective belt, and a full slate of participants for next month, I think we can say that we’ve had a successful beginning! (more…)

I was very excited to learn this morning that Baker Donelson is #31 on this year’s Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list (and top law firm)!  You can see the write up here.  It’s the fifth year in a row that we have made the list, and we moved up from 45th on last year’s ranking. For the second time in those five years, our pro bono program has been among the factors mentioned as what makes us so great!  (more…)

Law without justice is a wound without a cure.

– William Scott Downey

We live in a very superficial culture, especially when it comes taking care of things that are hard, or expensive. Or things that can’t be fixed overnight. We like instant gratification. We like to congratulate ourselves for a job well done and walk away. (more…)

Preservation Of Hard Won Voting Rights Is A Timely Pro Bono Mission

poll tax

Recently, I was going through boxes while cleaning out my mother’s house when I found something that was at once a historical relic and a timely reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same – it was her receipt for a $1.50 poll tax paid in Blount County, Alabama in 1956.  Doesn’t sound like much, but in that time and place $1.50 was probably a barrier to many.  I don’t know why she kept it – I’d be hard pressed to explain why she kept many things I have run across – but I am glad she did.  While like many people, and especially lawyers, I am keenly aware of the renewed attacks on the voting rights of the poor and minorities, there was something different about holding this tangible evidence of discrimination in my hands.  I already knew it was real, of course, but this little piece of paper brought it home in a way that I had never personally experienced.

Over the years, efforts to inhibit the votes of poor people and people of color have taken many forms and, until recently, had gone from blatant to much more subtle and more insidious.  The more forthright forms of discrimination, like the poll tax, citizenship and literacy tests, and property requirements had largely been replaced by more complex things like redistricting schemes in which discriminatory intentions could be better hidden.  Indeed, new progress was taking place in some areas, with extended voting days and times and voting by mail increasing people’s access to the polls.  Now, particularly in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act, many state and local governments are passing new restrictions with abandon.  Poll tax isn’t constitutional?  Well then let’s require voter ID!  The difference between these two devices isn’t worthy of note.  Many poor people lack a driver’s license or other form of photo ID, a fact that is well known.  Even if the fee for obtaining an ID is waived, there are numerous other obstacles to obtaining one. Yet voter ID laws are all the rage now, along with new districting plans, replacing historically minority seats with at-large voting, and restrictions on polling dates and times that limit people’s ability to get to the poll to vote.  Not to mention the wholesale disenfranchisement of ex-offenders.

If all of the people who are the targets of disenfranchisement efforts were able to get to the polls and vote, I wonder what would happen? Hmmmm.  But so many can’t, or are too discouraged, disillusioned, or just plain tired to even try.  Lawyers working pro bono must stand in the breach and fight what Hillary Clinton recently called “an unseemly rush to enact or enforce laws that will make it harder for millions of our fellow Americans to vote.”  The need for litigation challenging restrictions, for advocacy to resist new restrictions, for monitoring and protecting against election violations, and for public education is vast.  In her keynote address at the 2013 American Bar Association Annual Meeting, Clinton urged lawyers to join that fight, and she rejected the notion that new voting restrictions were intended as a safeguard against fraud.  “Anyone who says that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in American elections must not be paying attention,” she said.  Or they are, which is so much worse.

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

Nelson Mandela

Over the past two days, I have listened and watched as people around the world, from journalists and celebrities to presidents and other politicians, remembered and honored the life and work of Nelson Mandela. That’s as it should be – Mandela was indeed a hero for the ages, one who both understood the value of peaceful protest and had the courage to recognize the unfortunate necessity of doing more when peaceful protest failed. Jailed for 1/3 of his life for his fight against apartheid, Mandela not only became the greatest leader in his country’s history, but a great reconciler, full of forgiveness and hope. (more…)